Last Saturday, President Obama made a dramatic Facebook video announcement. In an apparent about-face from his administration’s education policy over the past seven years, Obama declared that schools in this country are over-testing. “I . . . hear from parents who rightly worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning both for them and for the students,” the president said. “I want to fix that.” In the announcement and the subsequently released Testing Action Plan, the administration aimed to set hard limits on the volume of testing and the use of testing data.
The move was swiftly hailed by many on the left. “Finally, Obama Denounces America’s Standardized Testing Obsession,” was the headline at Mother Jones. Salon reacted with open schadenfreude, predicting that Obama’s “stunning reversal . . . could spell doom for ‘reformers.’ ” Such reactions may be exactly what the White House hoped for — breathless, over-the-top hyperbole from the party’s base in support of a major policy shift that does, well, pretty much nothing.
But the dramatic flair of the president’s announcement and the elated response from many critics of education reform obscured some important truths. First, students are tested less than many people believe. Second, in places where students spend too much time taking tests, local schools and districts — not federal or state policies — tend to be the culprits. And third, the notion of standardized tests as “high stakes” is vastly overstated.
To understand how we wound up with a new federal policy that is all sizzle and no steak, you must start with the exaggerations that anti-testing activists have peddled for the better part of a decade. Education historian Diane Ravitch has led a crusade against “education reform,” centered on claims that a well-funded band of “privatizers” is using standardized tests as a means of firing teachers and destroying public schools.
Activists’ smart use of social media and effective national and local organizing have built a strong anti-testing movement around the country. But the pushback frequently is based on questionable math and overzealous claims.
In a well-trafficked post this year, a Florida principal’s analysis showed that his school was testing on 91 out of 180 school days. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has suggested that testing and test prep consume more than 100 days of school time.
Hyperbole about testing volume is reinforced with claims that these “high stakes” assessments are regularly used to fire teachers and close schools. These stakes are the ostensible reason schools have to spend all their time on testing and prep. The National Education Association’s argument for why parents should join the anti-testing battle includes this tale: “Nobody told [9-year-old] Lily that her teachers would get fired, but she’s a smart girl. She knows the stakes are incredibly high for educators and schools, and that both are desperate for high scores.”
Obama opens his Facebook announcement with a “pop quiz,” asking parents if they would rather have their kids: (a) learn to play a musical instrument, (b) study a new language, (c) learn to code HTML or (d) — with a sad, subtle head shake — take more standardized tests. Even a reformer like me knew that the answer wasn’t (d).
The Department of Education followed up with the specifics. The biggest announcement was this: States must ensure that administering mandatory tests takes up no more than 2 percent of instructional time. Additionally, states can have the flexibility to use multiple measures, not just standardized exams, to evaluate teachers and schools.
After years of claims that we spend half our school days testing kids — and many of the others firing teachers and closing schools — this would seem like a major shift. The president of the United States, dropping the hammer on all those reformers running amok.
Contrary to the exaggerations, though, most states already are under the 2 percent testing cap. A Center for American Progress analysis of 14 districts in seven states found that testing consumed an average of 1.6 percent of instructional time. In Tennessee, where I served as education commissioner, state-mandated standardized tests — covering reading, math, social studies and science — averaged between seven and 10 hours per student each year, well under 1 percent of the school year. Other states run longer, but only at the margins. The half-the-year claims? Creative math, at best.
Okay, but what about all that punishment? Maybe it isn’t the length of time — it’s the “high stakes” involved in the testing. Except this just isn’t the case. In most states that have implemented teacher evaluations, nearly all teachers perform at or above expectations. Additionally, states already use “multiple measures” to evaluate teachers. There are literally no states that use only test scores in their evaluations.
The truth is, it’s nearly impossible for a teacher to get fired because of poor test scores. And for schools, significant interventions generally happen at just the bottom 5 percent of campuses. Poor test results may be embarrassing when released publicly, which can lead schools to scramble into drill-and-kill test-prep mode. But the claims of massive stakes driven by federal or state law are overwrought.
The White House announcement, then, dives into the gulf between perception and reality. Essentially, Obama has promised that we will no longer do the things activists claimed we were doing but we actually weren’t.
Administration officials understand that it would be completely irresponsible to ditch standardized testing. There is a reason that most civil rights groups support annual exams: They believe that only through measurement and reporting can we ensure that minority children make enough progress to pursue their dreams. It’s not unreasonable to take 2 percent of the school year and use it to measure the progress made during the other 98 percent.
Still, many schools and districts do give too many unneeded and unwanted tests. But that’s not because of federal policy: Many of the standardized tests that critics blame on laws like No Child Left Behind actually are chosen and purchased by local schools. Some are good and are used to help teachers improve their instruction. Some just take up time. A recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools found that many tests given in urban districts are ordered at the local level. Making matters worse, giving more tests has no impact on student learning. If schools are giving interim exams to improve their performance on the “real” standardized tests, it isn’t working.
And most pressing for parents, many schools spend too much time on mind-numbing test prep, sitting kids at their desks and going over endless multiple-choice questions. Not only is test prep boring for kids, there is scant evidence that it improves scores. It is an ineffective strategy driven by an overreaction to a misperception of actual stakes.
So what should parents make of all this? First, they should dig into claims they hear about tests and stakes. How much time does your child — not all children added together, but your child — actually spend taking mandatory standardized tests? And what are the actual stakes? Is there really much likelihood that your teachers or school will suffer terrible consequences? How poorly would your class or school need to perform to trigger any punitive response? And if performance was that low, would that be acceptable to you, no matter how you feel about testing?
Parents should also take more control over district and school testing policies. Federal and state government roles are limited, so when excess testing happens, it often results from local decisions. Some of these decisions make sense, but many do not, and parents are right to feel frustrated if their children take extra tests with limited utility.
Most important, parents should focus their complaints on test prep in their local schools. As states give better assessments with more writing and problem-solving, schools have even less reason to make kids sit at their desks filling in circles (though as long as ready-made test-prep kits are being marketed to them, many schools and school districts will keep purchasing them). The “high stakes” are largely a myth and should not be an excuse for boring lessons. Parents can and should demand quality instruction, not low-yield test prep.